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Travel focus: El Hierro

So this is how Europe ends: with raw, magnificent beauty. By Simon Calder

El Hierro has a dual distinction: the isle is the southernmost and esternmost point of both the Canary Islands and Spain as a whole. Even on the map, it looks dramatic: a three-pointed Napoleonic hat, with each side nibbled away. The three-dimensional reality is even more impressive. As you approach by air or sea, a corrugated cone rises from the ocean, softened by a green cloak that has casually been draped over much of the terrain.

El Hierro comprises a series of discoveries – starting with how easy it is to reach, barely half-an-hour from Tenerife by air, or under three hours by sea.

Next, how intricately the coast has been etched by man. You will arrive, by sea or by air, in the north-east – and with easy reach of the settlements of El Tamaduste and La Caleta. These coastal villages have instant appeal, with cottages compressed beneath the cliffs, with every opportunity taken to create pools suitable for safe swimming. Beside the pools at La Caleta, you can even see petroglyphs on the cliffs engraved by the original human residents, the Bimbaches. They were displaced at the start of the 15th century when the first wave of Norman invaders arrived.

The following centuries saw settlements grow slowly, with Valverde – high and modestly mighty – emerging as capital thanks to its natural protection against piracy.

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From here, you should aim for one of the world’s finer balconies: the Mirador de la Peña.

The great Canarian artist-architect, César Manrique, created a restaurant that perches high above El Golfo – the dramatic northern bay. It is as though a giant scoop has been taken out of the volcanic hub, leaving a serrated ridge above a near-vertical cliff that curves a parabolic course to merge with the sea. This was the scene of one of a global cataclysm perhaps 100,000 years ago, when about one-third of the island slid into the ocean – precipitating a tidal wave estimated to reach 300 feet high.

As the road along the shore curls around the gulf, the surroundings become increasingly wild.

At the far end the map shows a wild squiggle, as the road clambers high enough to traverse the ridge. On the other side, the land tumbles away to the Monumento al Meridiano 0, testament to El Hierro’s former status as line of zero longitude.

The southern half of the island looks and feels very different – you carve through benign woodland, as though you have stumbled into some rural backwater in mainland Spain. But the next reminder that your location is seriously oceanic is never far away; from the Mirador de las Playas, the ground falls away to reveal a delicate arc of shoreline punctuated at the northern end by the Roque de La Bonanza – which sounds as though it might be an attraction in Las Vegas, but is in fact a stunning rock formation.

A year ago, the restless earth which created these landscapes was busy once more. For a few weeks as the planet seethed, the emergency teams took charge; the tiny port of La Restinga was evacuated, with contingency plans to ensure the safety of all the islanders. But the underwater activity subsided, and serenity returned to the far end of Europe.

Cone ranger

The engineers who built El Hierro’s sinuous road network deserve medals – especially the men and women responsible for the tunnel that clips the north-east corner of the island, accelerating journeys between the capital, Valverde and the northern bay, El Golfo. But humanity’s tracks go much deeper, and the best way to experience the island is to get out of the car.

For hikers who seek a rich selection of options in a small geographical area, El Hierro is excellent.

The prime route is the end-to-end hike from Tamaduste in the northeast to the Orchilla lighthouse in the south west. During its 22-mile course, the GR131 trail climbs to 4,925 feet at the summit of Malpaso – higher than the tallest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis.

Happily, there are many more modest options, including a circular itinerary of Caminos Naturales (natural ways) that takes in a range of terrain. I have not tried every available route, but the signposting seems excellent.

Cycling is also popular, with the road network providing plenty of testing possibilities – and, given the low population, little likelihood of tangling with traffic.

The third great activity in El Hierro goes one step beyond – into the Atlantic. The key to world-class diving is the Mar de Las Calmas, a protected bay to the south and west, where the water is clear, the nutrients attract all manner of marine life and the volcanic origins are highly visible. The southernmost town, La Restinga, is the hub for diving operations.

Prime line

El Hierro sometimes feels like the end of the world – and for a good few centuries, it was recognised as such.

The concept of a prime meridian, by which mariners could calibrate their progress east or west, was recognised as early as the second century: the Greek genius, Ptolemy, ascribed a line of zero longitude in the Atlantic.

Some claim that the location was the Cape Verde Islands; but over the subsequent centuries the known world, from a European perspective, ended at El Hierro. It made sense to establish the extreme west of the world as the far end of the island, because all measurements from it were naturally positive.

Even when the location of the meridian became a matter of national pride and possessiveness, many countries still used El Hierro as the standard location. Eventually, the world agreed on Greenwich – but to reach the end of the world, just go 24 degrees south and 18 west from London SE10.

Green gauge

Could El Hierro become the first island in the world to become self-sufficient in energy? That’s the ambition, and an impressive plan is designed to achieve it.

The wind farm, whose giant rotors are strategically placed at high altitudes, can normally harvest more than enough energy to supply El Hierro’s electricity needs. But even in the Atlantic, the breeze is intermittent - which is where the wind-hydro scheme comes in.

To save up surplus energy for calm days, water is pumped uphill to be stored in a natural volcanic crater. Then, when the wind drops, it is released to power a hydroelectric station.

Techniques for harvesting, and conserving, the energy generated by sun and sea are also being considered. But in conservation terms, El Hierro has a remarkable story to tell. The lagarto gigante de El Hierro – the giant lizard unique to the island – was thought to be extinct, hunted into natural history by feral cats, collectors and visiting sailors. In a back-from-the-dead event, a shepherd found a surviving colony in 1974, and since then the species has been nurtured back from the brink.

The lizard is still officially “critically endangered,” but its future looks optimistic.

You can enjoy a close encounter with the reptile at the Ecomuseum in Guinea, on the north coast (00 34 922 555 056) – a fascinating location that also reveals the natural contortions and human past of the island.

Four-yearly fiesta

Two major events for early July 2013 that normally take place every four years: the start of the Ashes on our shores, in which England’s cricketers take on Australia; and the festival of the Bajada de Nuestra Virgen de Los Reyes, which transforms El Hierro. The latter will take place somewhere more scenic than Trent Bridge in Nottingham, and is likely to involve even more human drama.

Bajada means the “taking down” of the Virgin of Los Reyes, who is also the patron saint of the island. The small, intricately decorated human figure normally resides in all her finery in a hilltop shrine in the far west of El Hierro. On the first Saturday of July, her perambulation begins amid great ceremony. Dancers and musicians accompany the virgin all the way to the island’s capital, along ancient tracks. This 18-mile meander winds up in Valverde in the evening, but her residence in the cavernous church of Santa María de la Concepción above) is strictly temporary: she is then carried through the island’s bigger communities, finally returning to her shrine four weeks – and a couple of Test matches – after her journey began.

Many people with ancestral roots on the island return for the Bajada, with particular pressure on transport in the first week in July – but extra capacity is added, and with the possible help of divine intervention there always seems to be room for everyone.

Getting there and getting around

El Hierro is best combined with a stay on one of the larger Canary Islands. It is served by the Canaries’ “domestic” airline, Binter Canarias, from Tenerife North and Las Palmas airports. The former has the highest frequency, but note that flights from the UK serve Tenerife’s southern airport, 45 minutes away. Direct connections are available at Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, but note that these work better northbound than southbound. Incidentally, it makes no difference whether you sit on the left or the right of the plane – the approach is equally spectacular.

You can take the relaxed approach by sea from Los Cristianos, on Tenerife close to the southern airport, by sea with Fred Olsen; the 2h30m trip currently runs on three days a week.

Most visitors hire a car; both Cicar and Europcar have offices at the airport. If you prefer someone else to do the driving, TransHierro operates a good bus network – with a Bono Viajero travel card offering 15 journeys for just €11. The enterprise also offers taxis, available by calling 00 34 922 550 729.

Staying there

You can find small and friendly places to stay in the hill-top capital, Valverde, but a trio of seaside locations demands closer inspection.

The Punta Grande bears the full force of the ocean from its north-west aspect – and has lent its name to what is claimed to be the world’s smallest hotel. The Hotel Punta Grande (00 34 922 559 081) occupies a former warehouse that juts fearlessly into the Atlantic. Despite having just four rooms, it offers a spacious lounge with views towards the mountain and sea.

Going clockwise, the next coastal classic is the Parador (00 34 922 558 036; parador.es) shaded by dragon trees and coconut palms. Like all the properties in the state-run chain, it celebrates the local cuisine – such as soup made from thistle, and a tasty white fish found only in the waters of the Canaries, and known as la vieja.

Finally head to almost the end of the island. The Pozo de la Salud (00 34 922 559 465) is more than just Europe’s westernmost spa hotel. This handsome property rising from the volcanic shore is a place imprinted with the word “escape” – calm, comfortable and carefree.

For more information visit spain.info/uk

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